Consistent offensive line a key to Vikings success

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2013 - 6:30 AM

Adrian Peterson's 2,000-yard season wouldn't be possible without the help of his offensive line, a retooled, cohesive unit that's hitting its stride.


What stands 32 feet, 4 inches tall, weighs 1,563 pounds and still gets overlooked in Adrian Peterson's shadow?

The Vikings offensive line.

But as great as Peterson's bionic left knee is and as surprisingly well as quarterback Christian Ponder played last week in the biggest game of his young career, neither player would be heading to Green Bay for Saturday night's playoff game if not for five big fellas named Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt.

"I think Sunday was their best game up front," said fullback Jerome Felton, referring to the 37-34 playoff-clinching upset of the Packers at Mall of America Field. "We didn't have the 80-yard runs, but Adrian still ended up with 199 yards. And look how clean the pocket was for Christian. The key for us this week is the offensive line doing exactly what it did last week."

The Vikings went into the season with new starters at left tackle (Kalil), left guard (Johnson) and right guard (Fusco). Kalil, a rookie, and Fusco, a second-year player, never had started an NFL game.

Five months later, the Vikings have the No. 2 rushing attack and one of the most cohesive lines in the league. They've had the same five starters in all 16 games and Fusco has elevated his play to a point where the Vikings stopped rotating him with backup Geoff Schwartz two games ago.

"They told me I earned all my snaps back," Fusco said. "I can't complain about what they did. I put myself in position to have my reps cut. But I've played pretty well the past couple weeks."

Here are five plays from Sunday's game that help illustrate how well the entire offensive line played with the playoffs on the line on Sunday:

1. Third-and-11 from the Vikings 39-yard line with 8 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter:

Early pressure off the blind side from linebacker Clay Matthews convinced offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave that throwing a screen pass to Toby Gerhart over the top of Matthews would be a big gainer.

"Great call," Kalil said. "We used Matthews' aggressiveness against him."

Gerhart caught the ball 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Johnson, Sullivan and Fusco lined up in front of him. Fusco and Sullivan cut the legs of two defenders and Johnson got in cornerback Sam Shields' way just enough for Gerhart to go 21 yards for a first down.

2. Second-and-5 from the Packers 7 with 5:50 left in the first quarter:

Four plays after Gerhart's screen, the Vikings went with a power package. A giant hole in the B gap opened when Kalil kicked Matthews outside and Johnson mauled nose tackle B.J. Raji. Sullivan got to the second level and sealed the backside linebacker, Brad Jones.

Tight end Rhett Ellison led Peterson through the hole and planted linebacker A.J. Hawk into the turf. Peterson blasted through the hole and cut into the end zone behind receiver Michael Jenkins' block on safety Morgan Burnett. The Vikings led 10-0.

"Just power football," Johnson said. "When we're in a groove like that, we feel like we'll be successful on every run. I think that's how we've played all year."

3. Second-and-27 from the Packers 35 with 6:22 left in the third quarter:

The most memorable you've-got-to-be-kidding moment of Peterson's season might have come when he turned this bizarre situation into a 28-yard run for a first down. The Packers had just lost a challenge that Peterson had fumbled the ball on the previous snap. But they gained 15 yards when Loadholt was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for punching the ball from the hands of a Packers player.

Although it was a great effort on Peterson's part, he didn't do it alone. It's a bread-and-butter play the Vikings use when they suspect run blitz off the edge. It has gone for 65 yards and 82 yards for a touchdown this season.

On this particular play, the Packers brought a ninth player into the box when Burnett raced in off the Vikings' right side before the snap. But the Vikings were prepared. Loadholt and tight ends Ellison and Kyle Rudolph blocked down, while Fusco pulled right and zeroed in on Burnett, who is 97 pounds lighter.

"That's a good feeling right there," Fusco said. "I put that guy on the ground. That's one of my favorite plays."

4. First-and-10 from the Vikings 21 with 12:14 left in the game:

With the score tied, no one expected Ponder to drop 9 yards deep and launch a perfectly-thrown deep ball onto the outstretched fingertips of receiver Jarius Wright.

When Ponder released the ball, only two Packers defenders had penetrated the line of scrimmage. One was a yard over the line. And neither one was within 6 yards of Ponder when he threw the ball.

"We sure gave Christian a clean pocket on that one," Fusco said. "He could have done anything back there. He could have drank a cup of tea or something."

5. Second-and-10 from the Packers 37 with 24 seconds left:

Peterson's 26-yard run left him only 8 yards short of Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. But it did turn a 55-yard field-goal attempt into a 29-yarder as time expired.

Facing a six-man line and nine in the box, the Vikings called a run that was supposed to follow Felton through the A gap on the left side. But rookie end Mike Daniels shaded Kalil's inside shoulder, so he took him that way. Rudolph came in motion and kicked Matthews to the outside. Peterson instantly saw the crease and ripped through the hole.

"It's an A-gap run, but the way the Packers played it, we blocked it differently and Adrian used his great vision," Felton said. "The blocking created a big crease. And when you have a big crease like that and you got Adrian Peterson, a play that's supposed to get 3 or 4 yards can go to the house every time."

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